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Burgundy: Huge Crop Challenges Vintners

Per-Henrik Mansson
Posted: February 3, 2000

Per-Henrik Mansson reports on '97 white Burgundy.

Is 1997 red Burgundy worth the price? asks Per-Henrik Mansson.

Search our tasting notes database for more wines from Burgundy.

For more about the 1999 harvest, see our Harvest Diaries feature.

Back to Harvest 1999 main page.

Burgundy: Huge Crop Challenges Vintners

By Per-Henrik Mansson

In 1999, nature brought Burgundy the largest winegrape crop in a generation -- and then boosted the size of it further with rain in September. The way that individual vintners dealt with the situation will largely determine the quality of their wines.

While huge yields can lead to diluted wines, the grapes were very ripe before harvest, and winemakers convinced national wine authorities that quality wouldn't suffer if the domaines were allowed to harvest a bigger crop than usual.

"In 43 years [in the business], I've never seen quantity and quality combining to such an extent," said Robert Drouhin of the Beaune-based shipper Maison Joseph Drouhin, which bottles wines from numerous appellations in Burgundy.

As a result of the unusual conditions, the Côte d'Or obtained the right to pick 40 percent more grapes from the village and premiers crus vineyards than the target considered reasonable for making top-notch Chardonnay and Pinot Noir in these appellations. This much-debated move meant that growers could harvest 4.1 tons per acre for reds and 4.6 tons per acre for whites. In the grands crus, crop levels could go beyond the norm by 30 percent. But many vineyards exceeded even these higher crop ceilings, according to insiders.

Over the summer, the vines exploded with fruit, thanks to a good flowering, or bud set. Some wineries attempted to reduce the crop through "green harvest" -- trimming grape bunches before they are ripe -- and other techniques.

Some domaines, such as Domaine Méo-Camuzet in Vosne-Romanee, did manage to keep yields at normal target levels. Winemaker Jean-Nicolas Méo reported a reasonable crop level -- 2.9 tons per acre on average -- and criticized his colleagues for requesting "unreasonable" yield quotas in '99.

Good maturity in the grapes saved Burgundy from disaster, however. "The yields were monstrous, but we also had extraordinary ripeness," said Chablis vintner Michel Laroche.

July, August and September were warmer than usual, and the grapes reached natural sugar levels that ranged from 12 percent to about 14 percent potential alcohol. With the exception of the occasional moderate rainfall, it was dry from mid-August to the eve of the harvest.

Then wet weather disrupted the harvest from September 19 through the end of the month. "It rained every day. It was like March in September, with little storms," said Jacques Lardiere, winemaker at shipper Maison Louis Jadot, which ended its harvest in early October. Picking was stop-and-go at many wineries; some finished only around October 10.

Before the harvest, the Institut National des Appellations d'Origine des Vins (INAO) had accepted the Burgundian vintners' argument that the ripe grapes made it possible to make large quantities of wine without hurting quality. INAO therefore approved a 30 percent increase in the harvest.

As a quid pro quo for the higher yields, the INAO required the Burgundians to harvest grapes that exceeded the maturity levels of previous years; for example, a grand cru wine had to come from grapes harvested at 12 percent potential alcohol instead of the usual 11.5 percent. This was seen as a check on the quality of the wine, as high natural sugar levels can mean ripe wines.

However, after the harvest-time rain bloated the grapes and added even more volume, the INAO upped the crop ceiling to 40 percent when it became clear that the Burgundians had made even more wine than they had expected. At the same time, the agreement on potential alcohol levels became a challenge to uphold after the rains, when excess water diluted the natural sugars in the fruit.

To minimize damage to the wines, winemakers tried many techniques to concentrate the flavors. Some wineries used reverse osmosis to take out water from the must; others siphoned off juice in the vats, a process known as "bleeding" or saignée, to increase the ratio of solids to liquids.

Winemakers agreed that the vintage would produce uneven quality. A tasting of some of the young wines from the Côte d'Or revealed supple, accessible, fruity reds. The reds seemed better than the whites, which lack the length and intensity of a good year.

The Côte de Beaune, in the southern half of the Côte d'Or, started the harvest a couple of days before the rain began to fall, and was considered more successful in making quality wine in '99 than was the case for Côte de Nuits. The short window of opportunity to harvest in dry weather benefited the smallest domaines, which can pick quickly, while the large wineries got caught in the rain.

While nearly 4 inches of rain fell around Beaune in September, further north it was even worse. "We had a storm that dumped 300 millimeters [12 inches] of rain," said Roland Masse, who made the 1999 wines at Domaine Bertagna in Vougeot before taking over as the new director of the Domaine des Hospices de Beaune in January. "It was like Chernobyl. It's like you were radiated. I feel I made two vintages this year--one before the rain, one after."

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